Sunday, May 18, 2014

Old telecoms should be let to die

Today's techno-melodrama is on the damage old incumbent telecoms like AT&T are doing to the American economy by reducing our efficiency as their customers. We should just let them die of natural causes and move our service as soon as we can to newer technologically savvy companies.

In 1984, when I started working at Xerox PARC, I did not get a plain old telephone. Instead, at PARC we were using the Etherphone, which was packet based instead of being circuit based like plain old telephone service (POTS). We were wearing active badges, so the Etherphone system knew where we were in the building. When a phone call came in (this was before robocalls) the system would transfer the call to the nearest phone and play our personal tune (Doug Wyatt had skillfully arranged a Beethoven Prélude for my tune). To make a call, you could either dial a number, or just type "phone jane doe" in a command tool viewer and the Etherphone would look up Jane's number in the phone book and initiate the call.

Not being a great communicator, at home I have kept living for the last 30 years with the same anti-diluvial POTS from Ma' Bell. This was until May 7, 2014 when I made the bad decision to switch to AT&T's voice over IP (VoIP) service. More precisely, the bad part of the decision was to stay with that moribund dysfunctional colossus that is AT&T. I should have done my homework and switched to one of the new skilled VoIP providers.

I am not using the phone a lot, so at first I did not notice the line had been cut by AT&T for a couple of days. It was only when my roommate noticed that I was no longer getting robocalls (that theater of the absurd where the computer of a solicitor illegally calls the computer of my AT&T digital answering machine and bizarrely tries to sell to it some useless service such as carpet steam cleaning), that I checked if a phone was off the hook and noticed the line was dead.

Indeed, that same day on May 7 AT&T had promptly disconnected my landline, but instead of giving me VoIP, they switched my number to a service they call "AT&T Wireless Home Phone" which is run by their subsidiary Cingular Wireless, as their service people keep calling it. In my house I get zero to one bars on AT&T wireless, so I am not interested in that. Also, they gave me the Uverse equipment for VoIP, not the Wireless Home equipment.

So far, I have made three trips to the AT&T store in Palo Alto and I have been on the phone literally for several days with a number of people in AT&T’s support organizations (they have several and they do not talk to each other: they are dysfunctional). However, except for once for a few hours last Saturday’s morning, AT&T has not been able to restore my phone service.

This is where companies like AT&T are recklessly damaging the American economy. The life task of us scientists and engineers is to invent technologies that make society more efficient. The task of service companies is to deploy these technologies so general wealth is increased and we get to live in a better world.

Dysfunctional companies like AT&T not only prevent us from becoming more efficient: through their dysfunction they prevent us from doing our work and therefore they are a dead weight to society by slowing down its productivity.

AT&T Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President Randall L. Stephenson

AT&T is a $127 billion conglomerate led by Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President Randall L. Stephenson. Obviously, he does not know how to run an efficient organization. Maybe the campaign "It Can Wait" for which he is famous refers to his inability to integrate the companies making up his conglomerate.

According to the target compensation table on page 44 of AT&T’s 2014 proxy statement, Mr. Stephenson’s total target compensation is $20,600,000 per annum. Assuming Mr. Stephenson works 48 weeks a year and shows up five days a week, he works 240 days a year. Therefore, he makes over $85,833 a day.

So far, Mr. Stephenson wasted 11 days of my life, so he owes me already $944,163. To be honest, he does not owe this money to me but to my employer, because for 11 days so far at work I could only type with one hand since the other hand holds my phone while I am on calls with his various disconnected support services. In my free time I cannot relax to recharge my batteries to get back to work in good shape. Instead I have to interact with powerless AT&T employees.

I am sure this is not only happening to me but to thousands of AT&T customers. When we tally up the wasted time using Mr. Stephenson’s total target compensation, we get a significat number of the economic damage this causing to our society in terms of dollars.

Could Mr. Stephenson just be an innocent victim of a broken system? No! In January 2000, I spent $4,500 ($6,135 adjusted for inflation) to run an underground conduit from the utility box in the sidewalk to the service entrance in the back of the house. The City of Palo Alto had us put in the pipe because they had run an optical fiber cable in our neighborhood’s street as part of their Fiber to the Home (FTTH) project.

After the first 90 or so houses got hooked up with a 100 mbps Internet connection, the City turned off the light in the FTTH cable. This was because AT&T and Comcast had sued the City on this initiative and the City determined it did not have the financial means to fight out a battle in court. This proves that the AT&T executives are not innocent bystanders. Rather, they are ruthless bullies.

When I commute to work, I do not take the Ford street or the General Motors street and pay them a fee of $300 per month for their service. Rather, the respective governments own and maintain the various road communication systems like the interstates, the county roads, the city roads, etc. We call them freeways and we pay them through various taxes, fees, and tolls.

Today the Internet has the same economic importance as the road transportation system. It is time for the various governments to exercise their eminent domain rights and take the communications infrastructure over from inept private companies unable to provide a dependable service.

In light of the 2000 Watt Society, it would make sense to tax the consumption of electric energy to finance the Internet infrastructure, because of the energy footprint of the digital economy. To pay for the necessary new infrastructure investments, the government can levy installation fees, tolls on expensive usages, etc.

Like in road transportation the government provides the freeways but not the cars or the gasoline, the role of ISPs and content providers can be left open for competition to the many skilled new companies that know how to run communications services efficiently.

For example, my current ISP is AT&T, but they outsource the service to Yahoo!, which could provide me the ISP service directly. Similarly there are many efficient content providers and telecom providers that can do this much much better than the old companies. Examples are Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Hulu, Netflix, Ooma among the most well known ones.

Let us jump ship from the old companies that are no longer able to provide reliable and affordable services. We do not need people making more than $85,000 a day while not delivering. Let them go back into the trenches and splice optical fiber cables.

In the meantime, I am incommunicado, so if you want to reach me, either come to my door or send a carrier pigeon.